Last month, 900,000 Americans filed new unemployment claims, adding to the 16 million who were claiming benefits at the beginning of the month, a sign that the COVID-19 pandemic is still very much a threat to the economy. A second round of stimulus checks was issued by the federal government in December and President Joe Biden has included a third round of checks in his proposed $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.
Closer to home, former presidential candidate Andrew Yang is hoping his embrace of universal basic income, or UBI, will help him become the next Mayor of New York City. The idea behind UBI is that the government sends every adult a set amount of money regularly which ensures that when they enter the job market they do so not from a level of destitution but from a basic level or security.
Attitudes about wealth distribution, it seems, are changing. Thomas Massaro, S.J., a professor of moral theology, has given all of this quite a bit of thought. He’s a frequent contributor to catholicethics.com and the author of Mercy in Action: The Social Teachings of Pope Francis (Rowan & Littlefield, 2018)
Full transcript below:
Thomas Massaro: I would describe the pandemic as a crisis, a public health crisis, that it is, but it’s also an opportunity, an opportunity for the American public to maybe see a wider perspective that we’re all in this together, rich or poor, no matter what region you’re from, what demographic group you’re from.
Patrick Verel: On January 21st, 900,000 Americans filed new unemployment claims, adding to the 16 million who were claiming benefits at the beginning of the month, a sign that the COVID-19 pandemic is still very much a threat to the economy. A second round of stimulus checks was issued by the federal government in December and President Joe Biden has included a third round of checks in his proposed $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.
Closer to home, former presidential candidate Andrew Yang is hoping his embrace of universal basic income, or UBI, will help him become the next Mayor of New York City. The idea behind UBI is that government sends every adult a set amount of money regularly which ensures that when they enter the job market they do so not from a level of destitution but from a basic secure level.
Attitudes about wealth distribution, it seems, are changing. Thomas Massaro, a Jesuit priest and a professor of moral theology, has given all of this quite a bit of thought. He’s a frequent contributor to catholicethics.com and the author of the 2018 book, Mercy In Action: The Social Teachings of Pope Francis. I’m Patrick Verel, and this is Fordham News.
What is universal basic income? How does it actually mean?
TM: Well, great question, Patrick, and I think the place to start is looking back at just a little bit of history of the ideas, the current ideas for universal basic income, I’ll call it UBI for short, actually, can be traced back to proposals way back in time, at least a century or two ago, where various groups have proposed ideas for keeping people’s income at least above a basic poverty level. In fact, if you look back over the 20th century, pretty much every generation has at least toyed with the idea of keeping people’s income up, establishing a floor under their income, at least in the affluent nations. People want to have a certain level of equality in society, and I really think there’s an upper limit to how much economic inequality is palatable and sustainable.
So think back to the industrial revolution roughly 200 years ago, since then we have witnessed quite a bit of poverty and material suffering, and in response to that, there have been a number of utopian movements that have tried to alleviate the worst of that poverty. Some of this utopian literature and practice overlapped with socialism, even as far as going as far as Marxism. But ultimately, that has never really taken root, at least not in North America. What has sometimes appealed to a lot of people is how to transform our capitalist economy into a place where there’s less inequality, and sometimes people turn to the levers of government. I’m thinking of fiscal policy, transfer payments, welfare systems that redistribute enough income through taxing and spending to benefit the poor and keep at least a modest floor of income under all people.
PV: How has this all played out in debates within this country?
TM: In the United States, the 20th century has been almost like a laboratory for experiments. If you know your 20th century U.S. history, you may recall the progressive era, the ’10s, and ’20s during which there were a lot of proposals for ambitious welfare programs that would help the poor. Then, again, there was another great advance in the 1930s under the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to introduce ideas like the social security system. Actually, most people don’t know that even more recently, I’m thinking of the 1970s, an unlikely President, remember Richard Nixon, proposed the idea of a basic income program to replace the old welfare system. It was called Aid To Families with Dependent Children in an attempt to get rid of all of those waste and fraud and inefficiencies of the welfare system.
That idea even had the support of a very unlikely economist, the Nobel Prize-winning libertarian economist Milton Friedman, who proposed what he called the negative income tax, it’s like a refundable income tax refund, giving it to people of very modest means. And it never really got off the ground, but it did suggest that the idea of universal basic income has been bubbling up just below the surface as a potential program.
PV: Back in September, you published an essay where you connected universal basic income to the teachings of Pope Francis. How do the two go together?
TM: Notice that everything I’ve said up to this point only is premised on secular and humanitarian arguments and motivations. I said that nobody wants to live in a society that’s so sharply split between the very rich and the very poor, and that’s why we have some social programs, although we still actually do tolerate quite a bit of widespread suffering. So those are minimalistic justifications for generosity in public policies. From a theological point of view, I would emphasize what I consider to be more robust religious motivations to alleviate suffering. What would God want us to do in the face of widespread poverty? I’m pretty confident that I could identify Jesus Christ as someone who would support the general ethical obligation to assist the poor in extremely generous ways. Just think back to the Parable of the Good Samaritan, that’s chapter 10 of Luke’s Gospel, or Matthew 25, the Parable of the Final judgment, where Jesus is closely interweaving love of God and love of neighbor. If you’re going to be a religious person devoted to God, you’ve got to do something to assist your neighbors as well.
Pope Francis has been a consistent advocate for greater social concern for all types of marginalized people, refugees, people who are trafficked, people who are adversely affected by climate change, exploited workers, anybody who suffering from poverty or inequality. I have to say, there’s no specific program, policy, or formula that Francis has been advocating that would guide legislators or presidents or prime ministers in any specific country. Catholic social teaching is actually quite dedicated to avoiding the specifics of policy detail and staying with general principles, embracing values and priorities, and Pope Francis is walking in this well-trodden path. And especially during this pandemic though, he has publicized the need to address the deep needs of people.
Last Easter time, he gave an address, it was April of 2020, where he dropped this Spanish phrase. It’s an ambiguous phrase. It’s, “salario universal,” literally a universal salary. So immediately when people heard this, they started writing articles and asking hard questions of Vatican officials. Was he embracing a universal basic income in some form or other? Or was he just talking about maybe a standard minimum wage for people who are already employed, whether in the formal sector or the informal sector? So there’s a lot of ambiguity about it, but there were some very well-educated voices who were saying that Pope Francis has joined the Yang Gang, calling for universal basic income. To this day, I don’t know exactly how Pope Francis meant this, but clearly he was referring to a need, and it’s a constant Catholic teaching, that we use the gifts of God’s creation, not for just the benefit of a few, but for the benefit of all in society.
PV: So I’m going to play devil’s advocate here for a moment. I have to ask you this, what are the weaknesses to this argument that everybody should get a universal basic income?
TM: Really good question, and it has to do with the wellsprings of our political culture, grounded in the Protestant work ethic, and the American high regard for encouraging work. And, of course, these are values that are very much agreed within the Catholic tradition. Really all religions, nobody wants to discourage work. But at the same time, a structural viewpoint of the economy, recognizing how the contemporary economy really excludes many people from real work opportunities, a living wage. This is a really important argument that balances the scales again and reminds us that there is a need to address those who really, through the labor market, just don’t have a realistic way of making a good living in a dignified manner of life.
PV: The spring semester is upon us this week, and I know you’re going to be teaching a class. Talk to me a little bit about these classes. Does this topic ever come up in any of the ones that you teach?
TM: Yeah. In fact, the largest class I’m about to start teaching is called Catholic Social Teaching. I teach it most semesters and I just love bringing those topics, bringing those concerns, and values into dialogue with my students. So they’re old ideas that come from papal encyclicals published generations ago with long fancy Latin names. But what I really love doing is getting my students to see them not just as dusty museum pieces and I’m their tour guide through this museum. But really, getting them to engage thoughts that have been cropping up every generation since the Industrial Revolution, thoughts about justice, about the fairness of the economy, and the policy question of how do we deal as a government, as a secular society, how do we deal with the problem of persistent poverty of millions of people who have no chance of making it in a modern, very competitive economy? So I just love talking with my students, mostly Fordham undergrads about these topics, and sometimes I play devil’s advocate as well.
PV: The fact that Florida went Republican and voted for a $15 minimum wage in November would seem to show that raising the floor for people’s incomes actually has a bipartisan appeal to it? Do you think that’s because of the moral dimension associated with it or do you think there are other reasons as well?
TM: Well, I think that’s really significant because, as you know, Florida, a Southern state, is not usually considered a pro-labor state or electorate. So the fact that there’s an upsurge of support for a higher minimum wage in many parts of the country and across the demographics of all political stripes, suggests to me that perhaps conditions are proper, correct, auspicious for people across the spectrum to consider measures that will help all people, especially low-income workers to live a decent life. If so, that really closely overlaps the content of Catholic social teaching. The main opponent here, the main barrier to overcome a hurdle that we have to jump is that cultural element of we’re averse to seeing anybody get something for nothing, whether that’s a benefit or a tax giveaway program of any sort.
And I think the way that we can maybe overcome this is to keep in mind the goal of having work-related benefits, and most of our social security system is like that, but also an open space for some benefits that are not work-related, and especially if they’re tied, as the universal basic income is, to people who just can’t make it in the labor market through no fault of their own. I really do think Americans care about their neighbors, no matter what part of the country they’re from, whether their demographics are different, and they’re looking for common sense and reasonable opportunities to pass laws, to support legislation that will benefit all people, regardless of how labor markets treat them.
PV: Do you think that attitudes in this country will change as a result of the pandemic towards issues like universal basic income?
TM: I would describe the pandemic as a crisis, a public health crisis, that it is, but it’s also an opportunity, an opportunity for the American public to maybe see a wider perspective that we’re all in this together, rich or poor, no matter what region you’re from, what demographic group you’re from. And it could just be the occasion, as World War Two was the occasion, for wartime solidarity for post-war Britain. It could be the occasion when the United States finally recognizes that we’re in this boat together and we have enough solidarity to actually make some sacrifices that include higher taxes to support income support measures like universal basic income.